Gaza blockade to be eased within days, says Tony Blair
TONY Blair yesterday said he believed Israel would ease its blockade of Gaza "in the next days" by allowing commercial goods and construction materials to flow into the Palestinian region.
The former prime minister, who is the envoy of the "Quartet" of Middle East peacemakers – the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia – said: "Israel will maintain its blockade in response to weapons and combat material coming into Gaza, but allow that those goods that are necessary for ordinary civilian life are brought into Gaza as a matter of course."
The announcement came after Israel's government approved an investigation into the 31 May raid on a flotilla trying to break the blockade, during which nine Turkish activists died.
Hoping to deflect some of the criticism triggered by the raid, Israel announced it would allow two prominent figures from abroad to observe its inquiry: Lord (David) Trimble, the former Northern Ireland first minister and a Nobel peace laureate, and Canada's former chief military prosecutor, retired Brigadier General Ken Watkin.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the commission would not be allowed to interview any soldiers except Israel's military commander. The army is conducting its own inquiry.
Instead, the investigation would largely focus on legal issues, such as Israel's position on the Gaza blockade and its decision to take action in international waters.
Mr Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party that "difficult days lie ahead", but that forming the commission was the best of a series of poor options.
The five-member commission will be headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court judge Yaakov Turkel. It will also include Shabtai Rosen, a 93-year-old international law expert, and retired Major-General Amos Horev, who is the former head of Israel's prestigious Technion university.
The White House backed Israel's inquiry, calling it "an important step forward".
However, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said Israel's plan fell short of UN Security Council demands for an "impartial" investigation.
Turkey condemned the Israeli plan as insufficient and threatened to sever what remains of its tattered relations with the Jewish state.
In the raid, Israel says the Turkish ship leading the flotilla was carrying dozens of trained militants who had prepared to confront the soldiers. It has released videos showing the activists attacking the soldiers with clubs, metal pipes and knives.
The activists say they were only defending themselves, and some members of the international community have accused Israel of using excessive force and acting illegally in international waters.
Among proposals being floated to ease the blockade against Gaza are giving the EU, which managed Gaza's main passenger crossing with Egypt before the Hamas takeover, a renewed role.
"I hope very much that in the next days we will get the in-principle commitment that we require," Mr Blair said. He is to brief EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg this week.
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